Tuesday, March 30, 2010

March 26th – Kagoshima

As the countdown to Tracy's birthday continues, the sun finally came out – and we had a glorious sunny day in Kagoshima. As we sailed towards this city in the South West of Japan, you could immediately see why Kagoshima is known as "The Naples of The East" – no, it's not full of rotting rubbish, or with suicidal scooter drivers riding 3 to a bike – it sits in a wide bay, dominated by a malevolent looking volcano. The volcano, Mount Sakurajima, isn't actually as dangerous as Mount Vesuvius, because it lets off steam on a regular basis, and doesn't save up its power for big explosions. It was smoking away all day today, and in the mid-afternoon it did a major spew of ash and smoke, which covered a group of passengers on the tour to the volcano.

We decided to get the best view over the city and the volcano, by climbing the hill behind the city, up the 107 meter high, Shiroyama Park. This hill was the scene of the epic battle that the film "The Last Samurai" was (very loosely) based on. In 1877, Kagoshima was the home to a major rebellion against the Emperor, and the forces of modernisation that were sweeping Japan, which had seen the Samurai outlawed. When Hollywood got hold of the story, they added in the Tom Cruise character (there weren't any westerners involved in the Satsuma Rebellion as its known), they turned the Japanese hero from the dumpy and grumpy looking Saigo Takamori (see statue) into the handsome Katsumoto, and they took more liberties with the history than the even the best Destination Lecturer – but in spite of all this, the film is actually quite liked in Japan.

After this exercise, we wandered around town, and along the river – it's a mostly modern place, but it has lots of parks, wide boulevards and monuments everywhere, to keep you interested for the day. As we explored, we wandered into the sensory overload that is a Pachinko arcade – a bizarre cross between a Las Vegas casino, and the amusement arcades on Skegness seafront. Even though it was a bright, sunny day outside, hundreds of people were gathered in this incredibly noisy neon-lit hell, sitting mindlessly in front of their flashing and clanking Pachinko machines, watching little ball bearings cascade down the screens. It's difficult to describe, difficult to understand, and difficult to stay in there for very long, but it must have a hypnotic brainwashing effect on the players, who spend hours there, pumping money into the machines, transfixed by it all. Bizarre.

March 24th – Osaka

Yet more rain and cold weather today meant that we didn't get off to the earliest of starts. This wintry weather has set us into a lazy hibernation, where all we want to do is eat sweets and lie around.

However, we shook ourselves out of our torpor, and ignored the rain for a day of exploring Osaka. Our main destination was the impressive Osaka Castle, a massive provincial stronghold that was built in the 16th century, when Japan was being unified under Shogun rule. The castle might look very historical, but it was rebuilt out of iron and concrete in the 1930s after a fire, and then rebuilt again after bomb damage during the war. The huge walls and moat surrounding the castle are original, and the huge size of the stones, some weighing in at over 100 tons, shows that this place was built to last.

Unfortunately, the now-bucketing rain meant that the views from the top of the castle, over Osaka's modern skyline, weren't as impressive as usual, and the cherry trees that surround the castle looked about a week away from bursting into blossom – so, apologies that the pictures from today aren't as beautiful as they could have been.

On the train into Osaka, we were approached by an old man who wanted to personally welcome us to his city, and who offered to show us all the way to the castle. This is typical of the kindness and generosity that we receive from strangers in Japan – when our cash card wouldn't work in an ATM later that day, a young guy in the 7/11 personally converted $10 into yen, just to help us out. It's the kind of attitude that makes you pledge to be more helpful to strangers in the future.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

March 23rd – Hiroshima

Apparently, the powers that be in Tokyo have decided that today is the first day of Japan's spring (based on the percentage of cherry trees in blossom in Tokyo) – unfortunately, no-one told Hiroshima, because it was decidedly cold and wet here, and scarcely a bit of blossom in sight.

This meant that we didn't do too much exploring on the drenched streets of Hiroshima, and were mainly sheltering from the rain as it got heavier and heavier over the course of the day, in the covered shopping arcades.

Even though we've been here many times before, you can't help but marvel at the fact that this busy and vibrant modern city has been built over a site that was just radioactive rubble in 1945 – it's remarkable.

When we got back on board, there was a brilliant preformance by an incredibly cute xylophone ensemble troupe of local girls, in white dungarees and pigtails. It was much better than it sounds, and it was so joyful and high-energy that the entire audience came out with enormous grins on their faces.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

March 22nd – Busan

Busan (South Korea's second biggest city) is a place we've been to quite a few times before, so we decided to have a relatively lazy day. We went into town and visited the lively Jagalchi Fish Market – Korea's largest fish market. The sights, sounds and smells of the market are unforgettable - there were huge tanks of fish of all shapes and sizes, swimming around, ready to be yanked out and disembowelled for the consumer, and bowls full of creatures the like of which I've never seen before.

We went to the floor above the market, where there's lines of restaurants where you can eat the fish you've just bought. It was the kind of place where you'd be eating the freshest of fresh fish with the locals and having a really authentic experience; but unfortunately, seeing as everything that anyone seemed to be eating was raw, and because the menus were in Korean and no-one spoke English, we chickened out.

Instead, we took the safe and boring option, and we went to the sanitised world of the Lotte Department Store, and its fabulous food hall. The Department Store has just opened, and it's next to the construction site of what will soon be the world's second tallest building – a massive 107-storey skyscraper that's due to be finished in 2013. At the moment it's only about 50 meters tall, so it's not going to make the Guinness Book of Records for a little while yet.

Thankfully we weren't regretting our raw fish aversion for long, because we had a massive spicy seafood stir-fry which they cook on a hot plate in front of you, after you've selected a huge amount of vegetables to go in it. It was delicious and way, way too much food.

Monday, March 22, 2010

March 20th – Shanghai

I always make the same lame joke whenever I come to Shanghai – "it will be good when it's finished". For the past two decades the city has been in one of the world's biggest building booms, and its ever-changing skyline is constantly being added to, with gleaming space-age skyscrapers, while neighbourhoods of low-rise buildings are torn down to make way for more tower blocks and shopping centres.

This year, Shanghai is about to experience its Coming of Age party, when the World Expo opens in just 40 days time, so I thought that maybe, this time, there wouldn't be so many building sites, so much dust in the air, and the noise of so many jack hammers and demolition cranes. I couldn't have been more wrong – the whole place is being given a noisy and messy makeover, but it's nowhere near finished yet. Pavements are being torn up and re-laid, new roads are being constructed, and even more skyscrapers are shooting up. Whether it will all be finished in time for May 1st is anyone's guess, but if any city can turn it around, it's Shanghai.

March 18 - Xi'an

After another night in a luxurious hotel, Tracy was heading off for the highlight of her trip - the Terracotta Warriors. They're situated about 45 minutes out of Xi'an in the countryside surrounding the city. It was here, in 1974, that a farmer discovered the statues whilst digging for a well.

2,000 years ago, the warriors were all buried in large pits, lined up as if ready to go to battle, in order to protect the Emperor Qin Shi Huang in his afterlife. However, after the Emperor's death his enemies entered the pits and smashed to pieces every single warrior. This means that today's archaeolgists have the unenviable task of piecing the hundreds of thousands of fragments together. So far, they've unearthed and re-constructed almost 2,000 of the estimated 8,000 warriors.

The task of putting one soldier back together takes two archaeologists one year of incredibly painstaking work, so we weren't surprised when we were told by the guide that the expected timescale to uncover all statues and piece them together would be another 100 years! It's incredible to think how fast a skyscraper can go up in Shanghai, but how slow this task of reconstructing one of China's most incredible sights is.

The amazement of the site lingered with us as we made our trip back to the hotel in Xi'an, passing through the city and the incredible amount of smog. It's difficult to believe how polluted the city is, but you could barely see clearly past 50 metres - the guide was reluctant to talk about it but did admit there were a huge amount of asthmatics in town.

This was the last night of freedom for Tracy before rejoining Jon on the ship in Shanghai tomorrow, so she went wild, and after swimming in the hotel pool with her own personal life guard watching her every stroke, she sampled each and every nation's food at the international buffet before retiring, ready for the big reunion in Shanghai.

March 16 – The Great Wall

It was an early start to beat Beijing's frantic traffic, to get out to The Great Wall of China and to beat the tourist crowds. After about an hour's drive, we had our first sight of the breathtaking wall, snaking its way over the snow-clad hills ahead of us. The section that we were visiting has been well-restored, but unlike some other sections, it doesn't have a cable car taking you up to the top of the hills that the wall runs along, so climbing the wall was down to foot power alone.

The first few hundred yards were fine – fairly flat, with just a few steps; but then it got difficult. The wall started to climb at an incredibly steep incline, with the icy steps irregularly spaced, from six inches high to one foot high, which meant you constantly had to check your footing with each step. The upsides of this heavy duty exercise, was that firstly the tourist numbers gradually began to thin out, and secondly, I certainly didn't feel cold anymore, as the sweat began to drip off me.

As my thighs began to burn, the views got better and better, and you also begin to think about the amazing logistics of building the wall (this bit was re-done in the 15th century under the Ming) – those poor workers would have had to climb up here every day, carrying all the building materials up with them, with no machinery. The wall stretches from China's coast, all the way to the Gobi desert, for over 3,000 miles – again, the scale of it all, is scarcely believable.

Having climbed past 4 watch towers, I made it all the way to the wall's end (well the end of this section) – the terrain beyond the section was so steep, rocky and impassable, that they felt they didn't need to continue with the wall. Lazy!

Strangely enough, climbing up those 1,000 or so steep steps for 40 minutes was probably the easy part – looking down at how steep it was and how icy it was too, began to fill me with dread. As I descended gingerly, my legs literally began to wobble like jelly, and I was down to just a T-shirt by the time I made it down the bottom. This is one of those iconic places in the world, where you have to pinch yourself to make sure it's not a dream. The sense of exhaustion, only added to the sense of exhilaration in just being there in the first place.

Having recovered from The Great Wall, we went back to Beijing, to visit the sublime Temple of Heaven – Imperial Beijing's spiritual heart. This was another incredibly impressive set piece, with the symmetry of its tiered blue roofs and the ornate carvings of its woodwork, this is one of the most beautiful Temples I've visited.

On the way back to the ship, one passenger commented to me, that visiting the Great Wall was the last thing on his list of places to visit before he died – hopefully that wasn't a prediction!

March 15 – Beijing

Today, Tracy and I went our separate ways – I went off on an overnight visit to Beijing and The Great Wall, whilst she stayed in Tianjin for the day, before heading off on a 4 day/3 night adventure around Beijing, then off to Xi'an to see the Terracotta Warriors, and then re-joining the ship again once we'd got to Shanghai.

It's not often you get off a cruise ship to see snow on the ground, and it was a bitterly cold day, with a biting gale blowing in from the north. For no apparent reason, we were kept waiting for almost two hours by the officious Chinese immigration before we were allowed to leave the ship – don't they want people to come to their country? The trip from Tianjin to Beijing by coach took almost three hours, and so we went straight to lunch – our first of many round table feasts with countless dishes served up on an overloaded "lazy Susan".

Then we put as many as layers as possible on (I had 7 layers on), to brave the freezing wind, for an exhilarating visit to the vast Forbidden City. Everything in the Forbidden City is on a huge scale – a series of opulent pavilions and brightly painted palaces, one after the other, separated by enormous courtyards (the one in front of the Temple of Supreme Harmony could accommodate up to 100,000 people for an intimate Imperial audience). The good thing about the size of the Forbidden City is that, even though there's an enormous number of visitors there, it never gets overwhelmed by tourist numbers, and there's always a quiet corner to get away from the tourist hordes.

When you see the size and extravagance of the Forbidden City, it gives you an understanding of the sheer power of China as a country – once it had given up wasting its plentiful resources and manpower on Imperial Palaces, Civil Wars, and Cultural Revolutions, then it was always going to become one of the world's economic super-powers.

From the Forbidden City, we then moved onto the equally monumental and over-whelming Tiananmen Square, the largest public square in the world. The square is fronted by the huge Tiananmen Gate at one end, (this statement of imperial power incongruously sporting a large picture of "the Great Helmsman" himself, Chairman Mao), and surrounded on the other three sides, by the bombastic Communist architectural set-pieces of Mao's China – the Great Hall of the People, the Monument to the People's Heroes, and Mao's Mausoleum. Just in case anyone was thinking of launching any pro-democracy protests, there were plenty of unsmiling policemen and camera-shy soldiers everywhere, supported by the largest number of CCTV cameras that I've ever seen in one place. Political freedom has lagged along way behind economic freedom in post-Mao China.

After soaking up the Tiananmen Square atmosphere, we went to our palatial hotel, the Ritz Carlton, for a warm bath and a bit of luxury, before heading to a famous restaurant for Beijing's signature dish, Peking Duck. Some passengers seemed disappointed that Peking Duck in Beijing, tastes just like the Peking Duck at home, but it was delicious nonetheless – which couldn't be said for the Chinese red wine they served us, which would have stripped paint off a garden fence.

On our drives to and from the hotel, we got a chance to see Beijing's phenomenal modernisation that's taken place over the past decade. Fantastical modern architecture dazzled us from our coach windows (including the amazing Bird's Nest), while gleaming shopping malls, selling the latest luxury western fashions, made it hard to believe that this country still called itself a Communist one.

The scale of Beijing is almost overwhelming, but it's a fantastic place to visit.